IRISH CATTLE exporters are planning to use the UK as a so-called “land bridge” to enable them to continue shipping live animals to France when P&O closes its ferry facility from Rosslare to Cherbourg in mid-December.

Representatives from the department of agriculture were in Brussels this week to put their case to the EU’s standing committee of the food chain. “The response was encouraging,” said a spokesman. “They did not kick it into touch, and the commission agreed to come forward with proposals.”

Exports of Irish cattle via the UK are currently banned because of BSE restrictions, though the Irish hope to secure a derogation. Agreement with the UK authorities is another prerequisite, and informal talks were held between Irish agriculture minister Mary Coughlan and UK ministers in the fringes of this week’s farm council in Brussels.

The Irish Farmers” Association said farmers were eager to protect their live export trade. As well as the UK land bridge option, the IFA was working with a French shipper to take over the Rosslare-Cherbourg route. It was hoping for EU funds to facilitate a deal.

British farmer organisations were relaxed about the idea of Irish cattle coming through the UK en route to France, but they doubted the commercial viability of such a long journey and questioned whether they would find a shipper to make the crossing from Dover.

“I’ve not got an issue with it personally, so long as they do everything correctly,” said Keith Redpath, vice-chairman of the National Beef Association. “It could even help us politically in Brussels to re-open our exports once the over 30-month scheme is lifted.”

Richard Haddock, chairman of the NFU’s livestock board, said he had great sympathy with the Irish, but he wanted reassurance that any live animals would not stay in the UK. “I hope they do get the ferries rolling again,” he said. “The more opportunities we have to sell to the French, the better.”

But animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming warned of a hostile reception for the Irish.

“Anywhere we find live exports going on, we take action,” said spokeswoman Kerry Burgess. “This takes the form of demonstrations and talking to the companies involved to explain the full horrors of the trade and to encourage them not to get involved.”

 This approach had already stopped live exports from several ports, she said.